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Time Race for Tanya: Benefit planned for Richville mother of four diagnosed with terminal cancer

Tanya Sazama and her husband Rick with their four children, left to right: Hunter, 20, Rhagen, 4, Cassidee, 2, and Mason, 12. Tanya has owned the Wagon Wheel store in Richville for the past 15 years. She was diagnosed about a year ago with a very rare form of terminal stage IV lung cancer, a type that tends to occur in younger nonsmokers like her. Submitted photo1 / 2
Tanya, at the Wagon Wheel Jan. 7. Tanya's friends and family say she's remained positive and full of faith in the face of her illness, and is doing all she can to fight the disease. Marie Johnson/FOCUS2 / 2

Rick Sazama says the news of his wife’s illness was “a life-changing shocker.”

When he first heard that Tanya, his high school sweetheart and the mother of their four children, was suffering from a rare form of terminal cancer, “It just kind of took my breath away,” he recalls.

The devastating diagnosis came last March, after what Tanya thought would be a short doctor’s visit in Perham unexpectedly turned into an 11-day stay at a Fargo hospital. She had been dealing with headaches for the previous few months, and then started having pain and heaviness in her chest.

She suspected it was a sinus infection that had progressed downward. It turned out to be something much worse: stage IV lung cancer.

At first, Tanya didn’t believe it. She had always been healthy -- an active young wife, mother and business owner (she’s 39 years old) who rarely drinks, has never smoked, and favors wholesome, organic foods.

“There’s never been a lot of cancer in the family, so I was surprised,” she said during a recent interview. “I was in denial. At first I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, even after they told me it was cancer.”

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a very big deal.

Tanya soon learned that she has ROS1+ mutations, which tend to occur in younger nonsmokers like herself. The prognosis for stage IV lung cancer is grim: 50 percent of patients pass away within about eight months of diagnosis, and the five-year survival rate is only four percent, according to

But Tanya and her family remain optimistic. The odds for survival increase for patients who are women, and for those who are younger and healthier to begin with, as is the case with Tanya. Also, ROS1+ mutations are more likely to respond to newer, targeted therapies than some other types, and new treatments are being studied and approved all the time.

Tanya is currently taking a targeted therapy pill, which she said seems to be helping, and her friends, family and faith are helping to keep her grounded.

“She is probably the sweetest, gentlest, most down-to-earth person I’ve ever met in my life,” said Jodi Sazama, Tanya’s sister-in-law. “She’s very spiritual. This cancer thing is the most unfair thing.”

Jodi is just one in a large clan of Tanya’s immediate and extended family. The daughter of Larry Kawlewski and Barb Torgerson, she has 10 siblings. She has many friends and connections in the area, too, having grown up in Richville and graduated from Perham High School.

“She’s the most strong, faithful person that I can imagine,” said one of her sisters, Trisha Kawlewski. “She knows she has a lot of people behind her, so I think that’s how her faith keeps going.”

Tanya has owned and operated the Wagon Wheel store in Richville for the past 15 years, after buying it from her mother, who owned it for years before that. Rick took over management of the Wagon Wheel after Tanya fell ill, and their kids have often been seen in and around the store over the years, so customers have come to know and love the whole Sazama family.

That love is showing itself now, in the form of overwhelming support during the family’s time of need. Rick said “the outpouring of generosity from the community has been just crazy. People have been super. We’re glad we live in a small town in a situation like this.”

Already, there have been two fundraisers for the family, and another big benefit is coming up. Smaller benefits have been held at the Methodist church in Richville as well as St. Lawrence Church in Rush Lake. Next up is a community-wide chili feed at The Cactus. Billed as a “Time Race for Tanya,” the event will start at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21 and will include games and live and silent auctions. Everyone is invited.

Local businesses are also getting in on the support, with Nest and Goose Gang donating a day’s worth of coffee and popcorn sales, as well as any tips made, the day before the benefit.

“The idea (for the ‘Time Race for Tanya’ benefit) was everyone’s,” said Jodi, explaining that the event is being organized by both the Sazamas and Kawlewskis. “When we first found out Tanya was sick, the family really rallied together.”

That rallying started right in Tanya’s own home. Shortly after her diagnosis, Rick quit his job at West Central Ag to take over Tanya’s duties at the Wagon Wheel so she could focus on her health. He had never even used the cash register before, Tanya said, so there was a lot to learn. The couple’s oldest son, Hunter, age 20, has stepped up and is pitching in around the house more than ever, Rick said, helping with chores and the care of his younger siblings Mason, 12, Rhagen, 4, and Cassidee, 2.

Rick said all the kids are handling the situation as well as can be expected, though he’s not sure how much the young girls understand about what’s going on, other than that “Mom is sick.”

“There’s a roller coaster of ups and downs,” he said of their lives these days. “Some days you’re positive, some days not so much… But Tanya’s got a lot of fight. She’s very much ‘go forward and take care of it, and do what we’ve got to do.’”

One of the things they’ve got to do is research and seek out new forms of treatment, a task that Jodi said many family members are helping with. Donations and funds raised at the upcoming benefit will help pay for any traveling that Tanya needs to do to see out-of-area specialists. She’s primarily doctoring at Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, N.D., but is also making trips to Mayo Clinic and would like to see a specialist in Denver, Colo. as soon as possible. Much of this is not covered by insurance.

Finding alternative treatments is a must. The pill Tanya is on now won’t be effective forever, as her body will one day build up a resistance to it (her oncologists say the average time before this happens is 18 months). So finding another course of action is truly a ‘Time Race.’

“To cope, I just put my trust in God that every trial is for a reason,” Tanya said. “Even if I don’t necessarily know what that reason is.”

“We’re all very hopeful,” Trisha said, sharing her sister’s optimism. “A lot of our family is pretty religious. We believe in prayers 100 percent. We definitely believe that there could be a miracle here. If anybody’s strong enough to fight this, it’s Tanya.”

'Time Race for Tanya'

-The benefit is planned at The Cactus in Perham on Saturday, Jan. 21 at 3 p.m., with a live auction beginning at 7. Chili feed, games and silent auction will also be on site.

-Donations will be accepted at any time to the ‘Time Race for Tanya’ account set up at United Community Bank in Perham.

-Also, sales from coffee products at Nest, or popcorn from Goose Gang, as well as all tips made, on Friday, Jan. 20, will be donated to the benefit.